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Wild Arms 3 PS2 Review

/ Jan 13th, 2003 No Comments

Had the PS2 been released in the 1950’s – along with color TVs, computers, design software, public tolerance of violent entertainment…just bear with me – there likely would be as many story-based video games featuring cowboys as today’s games of cops, soldiers, knights and criminals. Instead of Solid Snake gunning down weird super terrorists and questing to save the world, we’d have the Lone Ranger gunning down communist desperados and questing to save the homesteaders. But these days, Western settings and themes in games are rare, making those games that do feature them inherently intriguing – after all, there must have been something cool about cowboys for them to dominate movie screens and television back then.

Wild Arms 3 (WA3), Media Vision’s long, winding RPG tale of four adventurers questing to save their planet, does feature such an intriguing western setting, but it surprised me how little was made of it beyond the look. The main character carries two six-shooters, another character looks Native American, and some gunfights take place on horseback, but otherwise, the setting is chaps around the legs of fairly straightforward RPG game play, though it has all the puzzle-solving, tactical combat, and exploration opportunities to satisfy fans of the genre.

Story

WA3’s story involves four adventurers, called “drifters,” who meet unexpectedly and team up for a huge adventure across the breadth of their world, Filgaia. As they journey to new towns and dungeons, the drifters end up in the thick of a plot involving prophets, demons, technology, the environment, other drifters, metaphysics, memories… I honestly only have a vague idea of what happened after learning about the first ultimate bad guy. For those who like long stories with plenty of twists to beckon players toward the next area/two hours of play, WA3’s got plenty even if it all gets too high-concept for its own good. The story ultimately has more in common with science fiction/fantasy than anything western, but anime fans will enjoy the character drama and depth. Huge may be an understatement for WA3’s scope, as it has at least 25 hours of game play straight down the main path, and up to 60 or more hours with the many worthwhile side quests and secrets thrown in.

Each of the four characters has their own distinct personality and issues that – in true anime fashion – are dramatized to their absolute peak. It gets pretty melodramatic when main character Virginia ponders her reactions to her long-lost father or cool-dude Jet Enduro throws tantrums about his identity. Still, the characters are each likeable and interesting enough to make their respective reactions to the adventure worth paying attention to, although none of them spike the coolness gauge as Auron does in Final Fantasy X. Though it lacks voiceovers, WA3 lends some expressiveness to the character’s is through an “expressive-communication” system where a portrait of a character in various moods appears in the background of their dialogue box.

Graphics and Sound

WA3 uses cel-shading technology, although it bears little resemblance to the recent flux of other cel-shaded games that are heavy on fluid animation. Only the characters and monsters sport that big black cel-shading outline plus an odd but eye-catching effect where their textures seem to slide when they move. It’s surprising given the characters’ unique look that the backgrounds are otherwise plain and uninspiring. The world map in particular is mostly brown and featureless beyond rises in terrain and icons that player’s discover during their travels. Though the animations outside of combat are few and often rather stiff; the run-and-gun combat situations make the most of cel-shading’s animation abilities. The music carries most of the game’s Old West flavor in its tunes that feature twangy acoustic guitar and whistling. While not bad, the music is incessant and gets repetitive quickly.

Game Play

Though its setting is unconventional, WA3’s game play is mostly out of the console RPG formula book, meaning that it blends a number of elements from strategy and puzzle games, plus a smattering of action into its system of exploration and combat. It does have some new slants on convention. Dungeon exploration often requires players to solve puzzles by using each of the character’s special tools. The puzzles take many forms, including block pushing, pattern matching, and the occasional call for careful timing or analog stick nudging.

Encounters with monsters are random, but the player has the ability to pass on a combat with a timely press of the circle button. Doing so decreases an encounter gauge, so eventually players will be forced to fight in places at or above their level. It can get pretty annoying when one is concentrating on exploration when the exclamation point signaling an impending combat pops up and there’s no way to avoid it – which it often will. The encounter gauge increases as players discover certain items, allowing them to eventually skip easy combats.

The combat system itself involves standard RPG turn-based attack or magic selection, done through a nice interface where players press the directional pad and a button to select an action rather than wade through menu lists. WA3’s most outstanding feature is the way characters and most monsters will run around as the combat round progresses. With the camera dramatically swinging around to show the current action, this is an enjoyable change from the stiff standoff combats of other console RPGs, although it is only a cosmetic feature. Later in the game, players engage in combat with a tank-like sand ship. Combat still follows the turn-based formula, but the characters have different options based on their posts on the sand ship. While this combat is exciting at first, once the ship is upgraded to the highest gun level, every such combat ends up as a one-move affair of emptying the gun’s ammo on the creature – nice for building up the character, but not balanced.

The combat situations and boss fights are well-balanced to keep players progressing through moderate to tough challenges. A few instances occur where the game will strongly suggest the character’s spend some time exploring (e.g. level themselves up with random combats) before tackling the next dungeon, but the pace otherwise stays steady. WA3 balances linearity and open-endedness enough to offer players a sense of freedom in their explorations, and the game breaks open considerably once the character’s get a sand ship to glide over the planet’s wide dunes. Most tough areas do remain inaccessible until the player reaches the proper point in the story.

The game’s best feature involves the flexibility of the magic system. Early in the game, players acquire mediums that grant them certain magic powers. Players can mix-and-match the mediums between the four characters at the beginning of every combat round, opening a huge number of tactical possibilities for each combat; for example, should the spell that exploits a monster’s weakness be cast by the slow but mystical character, or the quicker but less-mystical gunner? These mediums are further customizable by attaching items that grant resistances and special combat abilities to the character. In terms of character-building, WA3 is as involving as it gets.

Overall

Yeah, there were no video games in the 1950’s, so it’s likely that the Old West hero will always play second fiddle to hi-tech super soldiers and criminals (and we’ll never know the outcome of Joseph McCarthy vs. video game violence). Even though its wild west setting is more look than substance, WA3’s epic story and flexible combat system are sure to captivate console RPG fans. With so many side quests and hidden bonuses bulking up its already long main story, it’s a game that players could easily still be playing until the next Final Fantasy arrives.

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi was a long time major contributor to Gaming Illustrated before disappearing of the face of the Earth. His service to GI will never be forgotten.
Roy Rossi

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